Louie Gong brings Coast Salish style to SPSCC

Submitted by Amanda Frank

Contemporary artist Louie Gong, 37, visited South Puget Sound Community College to give a presentation on using art to find and express ones identity.

A native of the Nooksak Tribal community and Chinese Heritage, he spoke to students, faculty, and staff about why art is important to him and his work with social justice. Gong has recently gained worldwide recognition for his work using shoes as a canvas to merge art and identity.

Growing up poor he was never able to afford a pair of Vans which he described as being a “pop-culture icon.”

Gong was 35 when he went into a Vans shoe store to finally buy a pair. Among the many styles offered he was unable to find a pair that he felt best fit him and his identity. He bought a pair of gray Vans and took them home where they sat for some time before he took a sharpie to them. The result was a combination of contemporary and Coast Salish Art, a representation of the Coast Salish Natives of Washington State.

“Shoes have a lot of power that represents who we are as people,” Gong said.

A Long House Media Film Unreserved: the work of Louie Gong was shown. It documents how Gong emerged as an artist and how he uses it within his work with social justice. Unreserved has been shown at film festivals around the world including Cannes Film Festival an annual film festival held in Cannes, France where new films are viewed from different genres and all around the world.

After the movie Gong displayed pictures of his art and the shoes that he uses as his canvas.

The shoes displayed different variations of his contemporary art mixed with Coast Salish art and his Chinese heritage.

“The shoes are a way to turn troubling questions for people and make them positive,” said Gong.

All the shoes he creates are commissioned by the people that request them. Gong discusses with the person about their likes and dislikes, finds out their personality before designing them so each shoe has a meaning and interesting story behind it.

The shoes that the DEC purchased were initially designed for Gong’s brother but were the wrong size. The shoes are decorated with frogs and tell a story for his brother who has an ambiguous look and often gets asked what he is. They are a way to express identity and address the topic that minorities and people of mixed race often face of getting asked, “what are you?”.

“People will see the shoes and it opens up conversations between people that aren’t centered on what a person is or who they identify as,” Gong said

Besides promoting his work with shoes, Gong has many other projects. He was a president and board member of the Mavin Foundation, which is one of our nation’s largest organizations that works toward building healthier communities by raising awareness around the experiences of families and people of mixed heritage.

Gong will travel to China in December to promote launching a product from his business Eighth Generation. Mockups are a new project for people of all ages and artistic abilities to create their own designs. If you’re just learning to draw, or creating a new design, the only limitations is your imagination. Unlike real shoes, these enable people remove their design and start over if they don’t like what they have created.

Gong is no stranger to the community college experience as well. After graduating from Whatcom Community College he transferred to Western Washington University where he received his masters in School Counseling. He has worked as a teacher, therapist, and currently at Muckleshoot Tribal College as the Education Resource Coordinator.

In addition to all of his identities and working Gong has been learning a new identity.

“At 37 I am finding out how to be a business person,” said Gong.

With no prior business experience, he had to add that to his bag of tricks when his shoes and artwork started to gain media recognition.

Gong was raised by his grandparents in the same house that they raised his father and nine siblings in Rustin, BC. They did not have running water or electricity but that didn’t stop his grandfather who is Chinese from making six-course dinners for everyone on his Coleman gas grill.

“Growing up I was privileged with the fact that if you worked hard enough anything is possible,” said Gong.

In 1984 his family moved to Nooksak Tribal community in which his grandmother was a member of. From then on he was immersed in both the Nooksak Tribal culture and his grandfather’s Chinese culture.

Last updated 15/12/2011